Sunday, December 21, 2014

Billy Berg: Los Angeles' Jazz Nightlife Ace - KCET's Artbound

Billy Berg's souvenir photo from 1946. (Courtesy of the Quincy Inara Collection)
Billy Berg was a nightlife impresario. He didn't just work as a promoter. He was a successful club owner, an MC and the grinning face of his franchise (he put it right on the matchbooks). The Berg brand meant music and dancing and drinking, a hip crowd and hipper bands. In less than twenty-five years, Berg came to own at least six different clubs in the Los Angeles area -- Trouville, The Swing Club, Waldorf's Cellar, Club Capri, The 5-4 Ballroom and the most famous, Billy Berg's.

Berg ran integrated institutions, one of the first to disregard the color barrier onstage and at the tables and he booked big jazz musicians. Lester Young returned to Los Angeles in the early 1940s to play lengthy residencies at both Trouville and the Club Capri with his brother Lee. Louis Armstrong spent a month with Jack Teagarden and Big Sid Catlett in the summer of 1947. Billie Holiday described the 5-4 Ballroom in her autobiography -- "a different kind of place, -- not high class enough to be high class and not low class enough to be a dive." Holiday also rang in 1949 at Billy Berg's, a gig that trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and alto saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker likely did three years prior.

Source: Jazz Profiles
Gillespie arrived at 1356 Vine Street with his sextet on December 10 1945. The eight week gig at Billy Berg's was heralded as a big deal by the jazz scene. Berg even paid their way across the country (they were unable to find work anywhere else on the Coast if that is an indication of their draw at the time). The two horn players were the purveyors of a new sound called bebop that was mostly available to Angelenos through 78rpm records shipped hot from New York. Local musicians like pianist Hampton Hawes, bassist Charles Mingus and trumpeter Art Farmer had already embraced the sounds but were too young and inexperienced for the high-profile Hollywood gigs. They carpooled up from Central Avenue to see the gods in person and nurse a Coke for two sets.

The talkers, the partiers, the spenders wanted something hip to listen to but also wanted to be shown a good time for their investment. Bird and Diz were serious young men looking to elevate a musical genre and that wasn't conducive to selling drinks or souvenir photos for $1.50 per flash. It wasn't that Parker and Gillespie couldn't convince that crowd to bring a little high-art intellectualism to the scene. Nobody could.
Slim Gaillard | Source: Wikipedia Commons
Slim Gaillard | Source: Wikipedia Commons

A musician who succeeded at entertaining revelers at Billy Berg's was the flamboyant Slim Gaillard. Gaillard was a showman. He could play multiple instruments, sing, dance, he had his own hipster language with a printed dictionary. He worked extensively with a bass player named Slam. He was Chico Marx reimagined as a black beatnik and Berg's was a regular source of income for him.

Gaillard was the opening act for Gillespie and Parker when they arrived and records indicate that he kept the opening gig for at least a couple of months after the residency. He wrote pop hits ("Cement Mixer," "Yep-Roc Heresy," "Flat Foot Floogie (with a Floy-Floy)") employing his goofy self-invented patois called Vout that attached "ooti" to nearly every word he sang. Audiences loved his wild clothes and stage gimmicks like playing the piano with his hands palms up. He worked steadily through his life as an actor and a generally fascinating character but was also one of the swingiest jazz novelty acts until his passing in 1991.

Berg knew how to market Gaillard's shtick. He hosted weekly shows on KFOX and KHJ from his clubs which often featured Gaillard alongside mainstays like Harry "The Hipster" Gibson and Frankie Laine. Gaillard even recorded a dual piano rocker called "Boogin' At Berg's" to immortalize the club.
1356 Vine Street today
1356 Vine Street today

Most evidence of Billy Berg's dries up by the mid 1950s. The current location is now Los Balcones Peruvian restaurant with no evidence of what had occurred there nearly seventy years ago. Berg passed away in 1962 but gave a lot of jazz musicians great opportunities in his short time on the scene. He put his unique stamp on Hollywood music history but he will probably be most remembered for losing a lot of money on Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Jazz Elections At KCET

Remember that Peter Erskine interview about Whiplash? It's a few posts below. It has a chance to become a short documentary on KCET if it gets enough votes. Vote often and early.

A vote requires no emails, Facebook links or anything. Just a click and you're done. Check it out here:

Jazz Vote Battle Royale!

Thanks for your support.

Monk Gala at the Dolby Theatre - DownBeat

Los Angeles' Dolby Theatre is home to the Academy Awards. Despite its rather uninspiring surroundings, the theater has a perpetual association with Hollywood glamour and an enormous space to fill (the stage is large enough for a regulation-sized basketball court.). The Thelonious Monk Institute's annual competition and gala capitalized on both of those fronts, presenting a show heavy on extravagant celebrity cameos and more first-call players than it knew what to do with.

Trumpeter Marquis Hill won the 2014 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, held Nov. 9. The finals of the competition were part of a star-studded gala that featured performances by up-and-coming jazz musicians, first-call professionals and celebrity guests.

The competition aspect of the evening was presented early on with trumpeters Adam O’Farrill, Billy Buss and Hill performing two tunes each. Pianist Reginald Thomas, bassist Rodney Whitaker and drummer Carl Allen formed the unbeatable backing trio. O’Farrill and Buss opened their sets solo, waving flickering bursts of swing and rapid-fire bebop. Hill opted to close his set with a solo spotlight, showing a masterful command of melody with his rendition of “Polka Dots And Moonbeams.”

The three young finalists were then left to sweat it out until the end of the evening, when the winner would be decided by a “murderers’ row” of trumpet-playing judges: Quincy Jones, Randy Brecker, Arturo Sandoval, Jimmy Owens, Roy Hargrove and Ambrose Akinmusire, winner of the 2007 Monk Trumpet Competition.

Between the competition and the verdict, a cavalcade of jazz giants and Hollywood icons graced the stage in a glittering, nonstop parade. Actor Kevin Spacey kicked off his appearance with a competent and charismatic performance of “Fly Me To the Moon,” backed by an ensemble that included guitarist Kenny Burrell, trumpeter Jon Faddis and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts.

The concert continued with a performance of “Flying Home” that featured a front line of saxophonists Jimmy Heath, Joshua Redman and Wayne Shorter with vibraphonist Stefon Harris and pianist Herbie Hancock (who holds the title of Monk Institute Chairman).

At the gala, the institute honored President Bill Clinton with the 2014 Maria Fisher Founder’s Award, given to an individual who has made major contributions to the perpetuation of jazz and the expansion of jazz education. Past recipients include Heath, Shorter, Dr. David Baker, Clark Terry and Quincy Jones, who presented the award to Clinton.

“I fell in love with jazz when I was about 6,” Clinton said. “I started playing saxophone when I was 9. By the time I was 12 or 13, I was going to a summer camp and playing 12 hours a day until my lips bled. I would come home and sit in front of my old Victrola and watch those 33 rpms go around, and I would play the grooves off the record and wait for the next edition of DownBeat magazine to come out and read every article.”

Following his off-the-cuff speech, the president was slow to leave the stage, shaking hands with Burrell and talking for a moment to a seated Shorter. Clinton was clearly in the presence of his heroes. He walked to the wings to watch Dianne Reeves deliver a soulful rendition of “Our Love Is Here To Stay.”
A tribute to Horace Silver exemplified the marquee theme of the evening. Pianist Kris Bowers, the 2011 competition winner, had the honor of holding down the piano bench alongside Faddis and Redman but wasn’t given a solo, missing a great opportunity to showcase what Clinton had earlier described as the institute’s ability to find the “next generation of jazz giants.”

Hancock returned to the stage to provide what he called “this evening’s jazz lesson,” which was a surreal collaboration with pop artist Pharrell Williams, who appeared in his signature oversized hat. Along with bassist Ben Williams and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, the group stretched out on Williams’ mega-hit “Happy,” offering a cross-genre performance that was more novel than educational.

Two hours after performing, Hill, 27, was crowned winner of the competition, receiving a $25,000 music scholarship and a recording contract with the Concord Music Group. The award ceremony led to a blowout jam that closed the evening. Seventeen soloists, including Spacey and a neon-clad Hargrove, took a chorus apiece on “Every Day I Have The Blues.”

With the stage flooded by Hollywood stars (among them Goldie Hawn, Don Cheadle and Billy Dee Williams) and chart-topping pop artists (including John Mayer, Queen Latifah and Chaka Khan), musical giants like Heath, Burrell and Shorter served as the greatest house band any jazz artist could ask for. It was a flamboyant event befitting its surroundings in the home of the Oscar awards show, but worlds away from the day-to-day life of almost any jazz musician.